New Raspberry Pi Bootloader Allows Network Installation

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February 9, 2022

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The Raspberry Pi foundation have released a new beta version of the Raspberry Pi bootloader. This new version includes a fantastic new feature designed to make initial Pi setup easier – a network installation tool.

For a piece of hardware centred around education, it’s fair to say the initial setup process has always been fairly complicated, and somewhat intimidating for people that are not tech savvy. The network installation tool has the potential to change that.

How Pi Setup Works

Until now, the first step when setting up a Raspberry Pi is to download an OS image, and write the image to a micro SD card.

This requires another PC to complete – something the Raspberry Pi foundation’s Steve Harper describes as the classic “chicken and egg problem”.

On top of this, the PC needs a micro SD reader, an unpacked OS image, and either terminal command, or image writing software, to actually install the image. This process has to be repeated any time a new OS is installed.

Over the last few years, there have been several efforts to make the process easier.

The first of these was NOOBS, a now archived tool that gave the user a choice of OS to install at first boot. This would still need to be written to the micro SD card in the normal way, but did allow the same image to be used regardless of the OS you wanted to install.

Later, a tool was made available, known as the Raspberry Pi Imager. This tool was capable of automatically downloading an OS and writing it to a micro SD card, streamlining the process. But this still required a second machine to use.

The new firmware uses the network booting capabilities of the Pi to download the Raspberry Pi Imager tool directly over the network.

The network install feature, available on the Pi 4 and Pi 400 models, means the Pi imager can be ran directly on the Pi, with no OS installed.

It can completely overwrite the OS currently on the micro SD card, and potentially removes the need to ever remove the card from the Pi. Once it it classed as stable, we can expect to see this feature installed on Pi’s rolling out of the factory.

How to Update to the New Firmware

If you want to give this beta firmware a go, there are a couple of ways you can upgrade your Pi firmware.

Using rpi-eeprom-update

If you’re running Raspberry Pi OS, you’ll have a tool installed called rpi-eeprom-update. As the name suggests, this tool can update the firmware on the Pi.

By default, this tool will only install stable releases. We’ll need to change this to allow this beta version to be installed.

We’ll need to edit the /etc/default/rpi-eeprom-update file – to open this file, use the command below.

nano /etc/default/rpi-eeprom-update

You’ll need admin permissions to edit the file. Change the value of ‘FIRMWARE_RELEASE_STATUS’ to ‘beta’.

FIRMWARE_RELEASE_STATUS="beta"

With this done, use Ctrl+x to save the file, press ‘y’ when prompted to overwrite the file.

Next, we can run

rpi-eeprom-update -a

to schedule the firmware update on the next boot.

EEPROM (bootloader) update has been scheduled. Note the line ‘RELEASE: beta’

Reboot the system, and the new firmware will be installed.

Using the Raspberry Pi Imager

Somewhat ironically, the Pi Imager tool itself can be used to update the firmware. This is considered the recommended way to update, but does require a fresh micro SD card if you don’t want to wipe your current install.

The option in the Pi Imager. Image courtesy of the Raspberry Pi Blog, available at https://www.raspberrypi.com/documentation/computers/getting-started.html#installing-the-operating-system

The OS you’ll need to install is named ‘Beta Test Bootloader’. Select ‘SD Card Boot’ when prompted, and the image will be written to the card.

Once complete, simply boot the Pi using this new micro SD card, and wait for the screen to go green. This indicates a successful install. The green LED will also flash regularly, in case you do not have a screen plugged in.

Using Network Install

To use the new network install feature, boot the Pi with a blank micro SD card inserted. With no bootable OS found, the Pi will fall back to the network installer.

I’ll be doing tests with the installer in a later post.

Conclusion

At this stage, it is only possible use the tool over ethernet – it’s not compatible with the Pi’s onboard wifi. But as this is only a beta version, we can expect to see improvements in the future.

Unfortunately, this is not available on previous versions of the Pi, nor does it work on either of the Pi Zero boards. It’s likely this will always be the case, given the changes in how the Pi firmware works between the Pi 4 and earlier boards.

But for Pi 4 owners, this firmware could be a game changer when it comes to setting up your Pi.

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